With a particular interest in social justice and spatial transformation, Tanzeem Razak is passionate about the ability of architecture, in all its guises, to make a tangible difference in people’s lives.
After having graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand with B.A.S. and B.Arch degrees, Razak went on to complete her Masters, Cum Laude, at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. She then worked for prolific South African studios including Noero Wolff Architects and Kate Otten Architects, before setting up her own practice, Lemon Pebble Architects, with partner Althea Peacock.
“We grew up in an Apartheid-era environment particular to South Africa,” Razak says. “Studying during the transition to democracy and then practicing in a post-democratic context offered the ability to look both backwards and forwards. And working with students from 21 different countries while in Belgium changed my preconceptions about being educated in South Africa. I saw that our training and experience is on par with anywhere else in the world.
“As South Africans, we have had to fight for our identities, and those identities can be quite layered. Just in terms of my own identity, I come from an Indian background; I am Muslim, female, South African, and African. So, we are a combination of things – and that is a richness that we should bring out in our architecture. Instead of emulating other cultures, we should find inspiration within our diversity.”
Lemon Pebble’s first clients were the partners’ family and friends. “Our communities couldn’t afford architects, and anything we did made a huge difference, which was very encouraging for us. This experience defined how we work, and fostered the idea of mentorship, of nurturing young people to become practicing architects.”
Currently Lemon Pebble is busy with inner city interventions, alternative housing solutions, an early childhood development centre, and heritage projects. “We are particularly interested in the transformation of everyday spaces – taking historically divisive and exclusive spaces and making them inclusive, humane and accessible,” Razak says.
Projects include a police barracks comprising a complex of about twenty buildings that is being converted into a training centre with housing. Razak explains that the intention is to counter the historic divisive narrative of single male spaces; create beautiful, useful spaces for families; and include a more publicly accessible auditorium to improve upon the current situation of teaching in existing dormitory rooms repurposed as offices.
The early childhood development centre in Ekurhuleni posed a challenge in terms of process, as the architects were given an existing prototype and briefed to only make minor changes. “We had to challenge the prototype itself, and started looking at what the children and the community really need. We tried to create a recognisable building that engages in the public realm but at the same time provides safe and accessible spaces for kids, clustered around a courtyard. Because of the lack of much-needed public spaces, the building had to extend to other uses, including accommodating activities that happen after hours such as an after-care centre. In addition, the project is located next to a taxi rank, so security had to be carefully considered. And we extended the intervention beyond the site boundaries, making the pavement wider so that it became accessible for other uses; and planting trees to offer shade while people wait for their children.
“It’s important to push the brief a little, and to ask difficult questions in order to come up with appropriate and relevant solutions. We have found that all our clients have been quite open and accepting of this process, which allows us to accommodate small shifts that make sense.”
Last year, Lemon Pebble undertook the conversion of a historic manor house with large landscaped gardens and a view across Johannesburg’s northern suburbs into the Biomolecular Institute for the University of the Witwatersrand. “The initial idea was to restore the building, but our stance was to go back and uncover the many layers of the building and what it meant for all its users. As a colonial residence, it was south rather than north facing. So we converted the private rooms into public rooms, and installed the laboratory in the old staff quarters. It became an opportunity to make the different layers of history visible within the space.”
Razak believes that the role of the architect is changing to keep pace with the demands of society, and that women have a very special place within this transformation. “As architects we still see ourselves as builders of things. But our real focus should be on innovation within the broader landscape beyond the site. Our skills are sorely needed within the public realm, and there is so much opportunity to be socially responsive and to design spaces that are connected and creative.
“As women, we have a very particular role to play. We have an inherent empathy in the way in which we design and look at things. We also have a very inclusive way of working – we tend to listen more, and communicate in a more nuanced way. Although we are often misunderstood as not being bold enough, I think that we are more open to others’ responses, and are therefore more open to a wider range of solutions.”
Razak believes that the Africa Architecture Awards offer an important opportunity for architects practicing in Africa. “I have been involved in teaching and examining, and I believe that our training does not prepare us for the highly creative process of marketing our businesses and building our brands. We are conditioned to see ourselves as struggling artists – if we are commercially successful, we believe we are not doing great creative work. We must learn to use our creative skills to build our businesses, and to communicate with clients and users. We need to make the profession and practice more approachable; this will help our businesses to grow.
“We also need to embrace what we do and not sell it short. We must learn to say ‘No’ if a client can’t see value in what we do. Our creativity has value, and we should all stand by that truth in order to make our businesses more profitable.
“For the next generation, the opportunities are huge. New media allows us to increase our spatial thinking through avenues such as social media and film. And young people have a much bigger landscape to work with, rather than just the object. Their skills go way beyond the drawing board into all media.”
As a member of the Master Jury, Razak believes that the Awards present an opportunity to celebrate identity and innovation in everyday spaces and situations. “Because we are used to working with such limited resources, we have developed enormous skill. We have a sense of resilience, and an ability to do things our own way. We have so much to share and show – a newness and freshness that comes out of home grown ideas, and a level of innovation that is inspiring.
“I am very excited to see the diversity of the African continent showcased, and I am looking forward to seeing social responsibility and spatial transformation celebrated, not as an add-on, but as inherent to the essence of projects. The very smallest installation can make a huge impact beyond boundaries and scale.”